On the 25th of February 2016, Rebecca Rush and Alpina Watches Adventurer Patrick Sweeney reached the top of MountKilimanjaro by bike, in favour of the World Bicycle Relief. They were the second pair in history to do so after Dick and Nick Crane, two cousins from the UK in 1985. The report of the challenge, written by Patrick Sweeney, gives an idea of why.
We heard the nightmare hissing sound (that wasn't a snake) mixed in with the sound of rocks crunching amidst our labored breathing. I'd torn another sidewall in my "extra tough Nobby Nick" tires. I renamed them Thin Lizzies and swore to never buy them again.
My partner and I were over 4,000 meters (13,500 feet) up on a breathtaking high desert plateau in between Mt Miwenze and Mt Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. We were the second pair in history ever to attempt cycling to the summit of Mt Kilimanjaro then riding down, all under our own power. Dick and Nick Crane, two cousins from the UK, were the first pair to ever do it in 1985. The only other bikes on the summit were carried up there by porters for a charity fund raiser, and only ridden down. I started to realize why it had only been done once before.
I glanced down at my Alpina Horological Smartwatch and realized that we were less than an hour from the high camp at 4,500 meters 1(5,500 feet) and I'd have to deal with the second flat tire on the trip, knowing I had only one spare inner tube left.
Mechanical failures like flat tires , routing mishaps, physical ailments are all ingredients that blend together during any adventure make the ultimate mental soup called emotional hardship. No matter what the adventure you're on, from trying a new route in your local climbing gym, to attempting one of the highest mountains in the world, every adventurer at some point has to learn how to digest that meal.
I was cycling to the top of Mt Kilimanjaro as part of my cycling the seven summits project. I would ride a bike as far up each of the highest mountains on all seven continents. I had already been the first person to officially ride to Everest Base Camp, and now Kilimanjaro was unfolding its tests of will before me.
My partner was three time world champion mountain biker Rebecca Rusch from Idaho in the USA. My first emotional hurdle would be finding out on day one if I'd even be able to keep up with a professional mountain biker. I was a full-time adventure but no pro on the mountain bike. This was all about biking.
Before our wheels hit the dirt, my biggest concern was a lone mosquito bite. Angry, red and rising like Kilimanjaro on my left forearm I worried it would strike me down with malaria halfway up the mountain. (Typical tough guy, I shunned the meds that everyone else was on.) I'll deal with it I thought to myself as I suited up and checked my pack and tire pressure one last time.
We started on Day One with a 6,000-foot climb up the lone trail for emergency vehicles. Though the grade was steep, we were able to pedal 70 percent of the time, which was surprising. Aside from the gear for the film crew, Rebecca and I both had all the equipment we'd need to survive on our backs, sleeping bags, change of shoes, 3 liters of water, etc. We'd eat at the huts and refuel along the way. Our philosophy for the trip was no porters, no Diamox; no help. Like it or not, my 30-pound pack was going to be my constant companion all the way up.
We'd pass through at least two micro climates and possibly a third on our first day—five total before the trip skyward was all over. Pedaling was tough but achievable, thanks to my 44 tooth granny cog which took most of the punishment on the way up..
The good news was that my training and altitude acclimatization in the Alps was paying off. Though I'd worried that Rusch would drop me, we ended up riding comfortably together, getting to know each other on the way up. We'd find out the film crew that was joining us did not have this same altitude acclimatization – a danger that kills climbers on Kili every year and nearly conspired to murder our documentation of the ride for WBR.
After three days we were going to make our push to the summit. Summit day was the coldest morning yet; frost covered everything in sight. This part of the route was too steep, and rocky to even think about riding. so with our bikes securely attached to our backpacks, we were off to take on the toughest section. This would be the test for both of us. My pack weighed out at 23 kilograms or just over 50 pounds, that's more weight than the porters are even allowed to carry by law for their own safety. Would it be too much for me? I had trained with 20kg in a pack, but that was at 1,000 meters or 3,300 feet elevation. It was 03.00 in the mornig, cold, and summit day and out of the darkness was creeping a twinge of doubt about my abuility to conquer the last section.
We smiled for the film crew, looked confident and ready, then took our first steps when Rebecca's free wheel (the sprockets on the rear wheel) came sailing off her rear wheel, bouncing like a superball across the rocky ground at high camp. Losing that off the edge of the mountain would have been catastrophic. If it was going to fall off it was best to happen now, but it was an unwelcome omen.
Lucky for us she was wearing a bracelet my kids made from 3 meters (10 feet) of 4mm cord that, once braided up, made a rugged looking bracelet with a purpose – it could be unraveled for just such an emergency. We used frozen fingers to unbraid the 3 meters of cord and secure the freewheel back on the bike. This time we were really off. We hoped.
We started up a fierce, nearly vertical vein of scree, rocks and volcanic remnant leading from high camp to the volcanic crater's rim. The first two and a half hours in the dark were tortuous.
The sun rising was a welcome friend. It was a spectacular appearance, instantly drowning out the darkness as it rose over the distant Miwenze peak to the east painting the mysterious and wild ridges with a bright pink and orange graffiti. Classic Hemingway Africa.
Unlike the instantaneous burst of bright light, the progress was far from immediate. There were still many hours of climbing to the top. My mind was a torrent of thoughts, many of them disastrous. I tried to focus on the moment and visualized being at the summit with each step.
Around 5, 300 meters (17,500) feet was probably the worst point yet. I was struggling to take in air, and the weight on my shoulders mixed with the lack of oxygen set my balance on a pinball ricochet with each step. I was constantly catching myself teetering this way or that, expending precious energy just to stay upright, then cussing myself for not staying focused.
Rebecca was pulling away from me and I started to worry about her. Did she go out to fast? Were the nagging sniffles she had at camp going to explode into full-blown pulmonary edema above 5,000 meters? Did I work too hard the first two days trying to stay with her and was about to lose it? Was I not in good enough shape to rebound quickly? She and our guide, Respicious, were getting further and further ahead. While he seemed relaxed and in his element; I struggled. But when our suffering was at its worst, Respicious would break into traditional African song, bringing a smile to our faces.
I started counting blocks of 100 steps. I thought of every motivator I could, from my family, to friends I had lost who would never see this beauty, to sponsors like Alpina and fans following on Facebook and Twitter. One hundred more steps. One hundred more steps. One hundred more steps. Casualties from earlier climbing failures were descending by us with alarming regularity - some being held upright by guides on each side as if they were a hapless drunk being escorted out by bouncers after too many margaritas.
Finally we reached Gillman's point, on the east side of the crater's edge. Rebecca and Respicious waited for me to arrive. They both looked strong, which eased any concerns I had. After a 10-minute rest, we strutted along with the confidence that comes from knowing you're about to achieve something you've worked hard for. Next stop would be Stella Point and the final push to the summit. At Stella we took another break and took our bikes off our packs to ride to the summit. After the near vertical scrambling over scree for hours this was the first place we could actually ride as we navigated the edge of the crater up to its highest point.
Even the simple task of putting the wheels back on our bikes as we assembled them at Stella Point seemed difficult at 19,000 feet. Our fingers were stiff from the cold and our minds were dulled from oxygen starvation. But eventually we put our bikes together and began creeping toward the summit. I was high on adrenaline as I realized I was going to reach my objective.
In what seemed like a slow motion dreamscape, the summit sign finally came into view. Much of the last few hundred feet was too steep to ride but we were committed and rode the last 50 to the top. touching the summit sign at exactly the same moment, before embracing. We had done it!
The descent was a very fast blur that was interrupted by occasional orders fromt eh film crew to stop and wait, go back and do a section over again, or try this angle or that. The good news was we met our goal and now could go to rural Africa to see the real results. We went to two remote villiages in Kenya to see the world World Bicycle Relief was doing in schools. I was shocked and touched to learn that 70% of the bikes donated went to young girls – some the same age as my 13 year old daughter Shannon. The reason wasn't just about convenience it was safety, security and life changing. In one village alone there were nearly three sexual attacks each month on young girls walking through the sugar canes on their way to school. The girls sit the second half of each school day in fear of walking home. But they know education is their only way out of their sustenance existence – most with no running water or electricity in their homes. A bike has an immediate impact – making them too fast to be attacked in the darkness and also giving them other girls to ride with. I was so happy to see what a difference the bikes made and was happy to be donating not only my money, but time and effort. If you saw what I saw and you are a parent, you'd give a bike too knowing the future it could create. Here's where you can do just that:
I continue my training and adventuring for good causes like WBR, but more importantly for you. I'm an average guy who is the sone of first generation Irish immigrants who could barely make ends meet. Now I'm living the most passionate, exciting and adventurous life possible. Every day I'm fulfilled and happy – if I can do it you certainly can too. It's time for you to find the adventuer within!
ABOUT PATRICK SWEENEY
Patrick Sweeney is an Ex-Olympian, entrepreneur and elite adventure racer. In July 2014 Patrick was named one of the "World's Real Fittest Athletes" by Outside Magazine TV, and he is currently planning several world record attempts in the most challenge locations on Earth. During these epic adventures Patrick will be documenting the attempts to be broadcasted worldwide, in the hopes of inspiring a new generation of adventurers with respect for the environment. A true "Alpinist".
His misión in his own words: "No matter what the distance, the hardship or the danger, I've got to keep pushing. I want to get uncomfortable, get scared. Adventure gives me control and control when you're scared is courage. Courage gives me the strength to live life instead of letting life live me.".
Visit the links: https://www.youtube.com/user/PJSweeney007